Manitoulin hosts Northern Ontario Forum for Farms and Tourism

    Len Mandigo, chef at The Anchor Inn Hotel, creates a beautifully plated pork tenderloin ready to serve the judges of the Iron Chef Challenge.

    Island stakeholders collaborate to discuss growing food tourism

    LITTLE CURRENT—Island food tourist stakeholders gathered at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre recently to learn from an industry leader in culinary tourism and brainstorm on how to grow culinary tourism on the Island.

    Organized in partnership with LAMBAC, Northeastern Ontario Tourism, the Chi-Cheemaun, the Northeast Town, Waubetek and North 46 Restaurant, the forum brought together Island food producers, restaurant owners and chefs, township representatives and other stakeholders.

    Guest speaker Rebecca Mackenzie, president and CEO of the Culinary Tourism Alliance, shared her wealth of knowledge throughout the one-day event and sparked conversations amongst those in attendance about how Manitoulin can become a culinary tourism destination.

    The day began with Ms. Mackenzie facilitating a discussing on ‘Knowing Our Ingredients—defining food tourism and the characteristics of a food visitor.’

    Suggestions from the group around ‘culinary assets’ on Manitoulin included: the two craft breweries, rich aboriginal culture, being cycling friendly and how Manitoulin is ‘authentic.’   

    Manitoulin barriers around developing food tourism were: local food habits, proximity of communities, the shoulder season, encouraging Tobermory tourists to visit Manitoulin and transportation on the Island.

    Ms. Mackenzie talked about who the ‘culinary tourist’ is. She said that people should be marketing towards millennials. “Food and drink is the biggest determining factor that they base their travel on,” said Ms. Mackenzie, citing a study. “They have the money to travel, they are employed and living at home with minimal expenses. By 2020, 50 percent of global travel will be in this age group.”

    She explained that millennials take recommendations from friends and social media on where to travel and want mobile accessible websites to book trips. She also noted that they appreciate the ‘forest/lake to table experience’ and love small batches of artisan products.

    Ms. Mackenzie listed Chinese tourists as another group that should be targeted for culinary tourism.

    “They love food and drink and are willing to pay for it,” she said.

    She spoke about Generation Two, youth ages 10 to 18 as well. “This group of tourists have a massive influence on their parents and where they travel,” Ms. Mackenzie explained. “They want a good story—they care where their food comes from. They aren’t brand loyal and want a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

    The final group Ms. Mackenzie identified were those visiting friends and family.

    “These people are awesome and your best ambassador for your Island,” she shared. “They are likely staying with you, so what they don’t spend on accommodations, they are spending in the communities. They are a resilient tourist during economic times.”

    Following the morning discussion, John Jahshan, chef of North 46, hosted an Iron Chef Challenge featuring Island chefs including: Jodie Shmanka of Elliott’s Restaurant in Little Current, Richard Anger of Buoys Eatery in Gore Bay, Len Mandigo of The Anchor Inn Hotel and Cody Leeson, child nutrition coordinator at Noojmowin Teg Health Centre.

    The chefs had 30 minutes to prepare a meal utilizing the local ingredients provided such as Burt Farms pork tenderloin or flank steak, Island honey, Manitoulin maple syrup, Pike Lake farm jams and jellies and Ontario vegetables.

    Ms. Mackenzie, Country 103’s Kelly Timmermans and The Expositor’s Robin Burridge were the Iron Chef judges and chose Ms. Shmanka’s meal as the winner in the beef division and Mr. Leeson’s dish in the pork division.

    Ms. Shmanka pan-fried the flank steak to perfection, featuring a Montreal coffee rub and a side of goat cheese and apple stuffed portabella mushroom.

    Mr. Leeson created a pear chutney and glazed the pork with butter and honey.

    The judges commended all the chefs on their phenomenal cooking and noted that it was extremely difficult to choose winners.

    In the afternoon session, Ms. Mackenzie facilitated discussion on ‘Delivering the Ingredients—defining a destination’s taste of place and meeting the food tourists expectations’ and  ‘Knowing Our Equipment—understanding market readiness across the food tourism value chain and how to grow your business through offering an authentic taste of place.’

    Ms. Mackenzie discussed her background starting ‘Taste The County’ in Prince Edward County in 2008 and working with government funding at first and growing it into a sustainable initiative.

    She said that one of the biggest things that she had to change was the concept of ‘people from away’ and not wanting to work with competition. “On a local level, everyone needs to be focused on working together for the whole,” she noted.

    Ms. Mackenzie talked about the importance of businesses having an attractive website with great photos, a map and hour of operations, in addition to visible signage and a dedicated retail space.

    She also stressed the importance of empowering staff, giving the example of a restaurant in Toronto that took staff on a field trip to meet producers.

    “If you are a passionate owner and encourage passionate staff, you will encourage a good customer experience,” said Ms. Mackenzie, who explained that she often asks her servers for recommendations for not just the meal but local attractions to visit.

    The day concluded with a discussion about next steps. Ms. Mackenzie suggested nominating a local champion like LAMBAC to bring together the other stakeholders and tapping into funding from Northern Ontario Tourism and FedNor.